The Secret Smoker Quits
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James Dean in Times Square

I haven’t had a cigarette in over seven months. Not one. A lot of people who know me won’t get that this is a big deal but it is. I’ll explain.

No one wants to be a smoker. So new breeds of smokers who aren’t really smokers have emerged. There’s the social smoker or the I only smoke when I drink(TM) smoker, for example. I’ve been that smoker, but really, I was a secret smoker. I hid it from the people in my life who I knew didn’t like it. I also tried to hide it from most people. If I ran into anyone on the street and I had a cigarette in my hand, I felt a little ashamed. But the hiding was also a little hopeful. If a no one ever sees me smoke, maybe I’m not a smoker, right? Right?

I also generally did it alone. I didn’t go out with co-workers on smoke breaks. I’d rather walk around the block by myself with a coffee. In its own futile way, it was my declaration of individuality. I was like a petulant teenager. I’m going out for a smoke and no you can’t come because no one understands me!

I think most people knew that I smoked occasionally but they didn’t know that I smoked daily. I smoked a little less than half a pack a day, with a few breaks, for roughly nine years.

Some of my friends who are reading this will be surprised, thinking, “you smoked?” I have some other friends who are thinking, “what do you mean ‘secret’?” And then there are members of my family who I hope never see this at all but, well, it happened and I feel like owning up to it.

The irony is that I find the habit of smoking disgusting. That’s probably why I kept it secret, so I could stick my head in the sand about actually being a smoker. When I was younger, I hated that my mother smoked. She sat at the kitchen table reading library books with the television on, filling her crystal ashtray with Now 100 Menthols (I will never forget my mother speaking the phrase “a carton of Now 100 Menthols.” It’s burned into my brain).

It’s also a little odd that I didn’t like my mother’s smoking. How can you hate something when it’s the only thing you know? My mother smoking was as natural to me as my father’s British accent. Other kids noticed it. I never did because that’s just how my dad talks. My mother smokes. That’s just who she is. It would be like hating my mother for her curly hair. She smoked at least a pack a day for over forty years. She stopped for cigarettes on the way to deliver me. (Not a joke.) The ceiling of our kitchen turned a brownish tan. When confronted with this fact, she said, “oh, that’s from the dogs.” So help me God, to this day, I have no idea what that means. I guess she was sticking her head in the sand too.

In college, I only smoked when I drank(TM). Guys in my fraternity would go out on the porch after dinner for “smoking practice” and I wouldn’t join because I had the rule: only when I was drinking. Looking back, that is a really dumb rule to stick to. Adding the prerequisite of intoxication to an activity is just plain stupid. “Sorry, I only play the tuba when I’m drinking.” (Actually, if it were the bongos, that would be true.)

Over the years, during lonely times, I would buy a pack and smoke out the window or on a rooftop and just, like, contemplate, man. Walking the streets of New York while smoking makes you feel like James Dean in that black and white photo. Then Bloomberg banned cigarettes in bars and, ironically, added another step to the ritual of smoking. You step outside for a smoke, often with someone, as an act of communion.

After a while, as everyone’s story goes, I just found myself smoking. I mean, I wasn’t hooked or anything, I would just have a little panic attack if I forgot my pack after leaving my apartment. I mean how can I not have one on the way to the subway?! Right? I’d throw my near-full pack away in the morning because I was done! And then I’d buy another at lunch. I realized the true allure of being a habitual smoker. A cigarette isn’t particularly pleasurable, but your next cigarette is great, a welcome relief from daily drudgery.

So, what happened? Why did I quit?

I wanted to for a while but there’s a difference between wanting to quit and wanting to want to quit. Something had to push me over the edge.

Last summer I had to see two doctors. One was an otolaryngologist, the other was a urologist. I scheduled the visits on the same day to get both appointments over with. I won’t tell you what I had to see them for but it was unrelated to smoking and the subject didn’t come up with either doctor. Both visits were incredibly unpleasant. (Don’t use your imagination.) That was the tipping point. I just thought, if I keep smoking, there will come a time when I have to see a lot of doctors. I really want to avoid that. I bought a box of nicotine gum that day, had one final hiccup two days later, and then quit. That was last August.

I can honestly say that I hope I never have another one in my life but you never know. Smoking at all was a bad decision but I enjoyed the hell out of it. I could smoke one tomorrow and be right back at square one. Now when I see other people walking the streets of New York with a cigarette, I don’t judge but it just seems unnecessary. And all of those pictures of James Dean? He was only 23 or 24. Dude looked 40. That’s what two packs a day gets you.

There is, however, one cigarette that I’ll miss. It’s not the morning cigarette. That one usually just made me feel unnaturally jittery and made me wonder why I smoked at all. It’s not the afternoon with coffee cigarette, though, that one provided a great break. The best cigarette is the two beers cigarette. It’s pretty self explanatory.It’s the first cigarette after a couple of beers and it mixes the buzzes of the alcohol, the cigarette, and the anticipation of whatever that particular night or event might bring. I’ve had that cigarette at the picnic benches outside the White Horse Tavern on a spring day in May. I had it in college at my first party. I’ve had that cigarette at Friday happy hours, barbecues, my friends’ wedding receptions. That cigarette is perfect. The problem is that that perfect cigarette gives way to several more imperfect cigarettes. When you quit, you’re not giving up cigarettes, you’re stopping the chase for those moments. You’re accepting that those prefect cigarettes are in the past and won’t ever happen again. It takes a while to accept. Maybe I can recapture that feeling with this one! No. You can’t.

Is my life better? Sure, I guess. That’s the insidious thing about smoking. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step and the journey towards health problems begins with one cigarette. You take it smoke by smoke and you don’t feel cancer or emphysema, so, you think “eh, this is fine.” And quitting isn’t some wondrous relief of having a monkey off of your back. It’s only after having not had one for weeks or months that you look back and think, “oh, yeah, I’m not smoking anymore. Neat.”

And my mother actually did quit. If she can do it, anyone can do it. (It took a heart surgery but she did it, okay?)

I’m not saying this to get anyone else to quit. I’m saying it because it always weighed on me that I hid it from people. And I’d like to make it known, so, if you ever see me reach for one, let the public shaming commence! If you smoke, then cool, enjoy it. The one thing my experience taught me is that you can’t get anyone to do anything that they don’t want to do. Those public service ads with people with no fingers and no teeth from smoking didn’t get me to quit, so, I doubt that my experience would ever get anyone to quit. It was just my time and I’m glad I’m free.

And if you’re curious…

How did I do it?

  • You have to really want to quit, not want to want to quit. Sorry to be vague as this step will be different for everyone. You’ll know it when you get there.
  • Read Allan Carr’s book. It’s not magic but it helps.
  • Allan Carr says don’t use substitutes, but get the gum. Remember that the gum will never be as good as a cigarette. Ever. It’s impossible. But there is a craving threshold. If you go above the craving threshold, you’ll go out and find a cigarette. Chewing the gum helps you never get above the threshold.
  • Quitting is easy, it just takes ten or fifteen times to get right. Keep trying.

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